By Del Schlosser
Recently, a friend reached out to me; someone in the larger pagan community became aware of my friend's practices in the Path of Ordeal and was speaking out publicly against this sort of spirituality. As someone who has been active in both the BDSM and pagan communities for quite some time, it was something I didn't find very surprising. It's something that gets overlooked when we get wrapped up in the excitement of the mystery and edginess of it all; what we do is dangerous in so many ways.
Once a magician or spirit worker begins the journey of the Path of Ordeal, a lot becomes normalized in our lives that is still foreign to most mainstream pagans. Remember, the real popularity of what we now know as "paganism" is as much borne out of the Hippie movement of the 1960's as it is the underground occult communities of the 20s and 30s. Early writings that encourage modern Goddess worship make this abundantly clear, with concepts like the Wiccan Rede, ("Do what thou wilt, an it harm none"), which is mostly a bastardization of Aleister Crowley's "Do what thou wilt be the whole of the law." It was such a concern, that people would abuse the power of magic to cause harm to others, that later authors would add the phrase "...an it harm none."
I belong to a pan-pagan organization that once suffered a fairly large organizational schism over the sacredness of sexuality and BDSM. This separation happened before I became a member, but the wounds from the split are still prevalent in the local pagan community. Those of us who grew up in North America are stewed in Protestant ethic, even if our families didn't ascribe to that particular spirituality. This movement has worked diligently for centuries to remove sex, blood, pain, risk, and the concept of life and death from our sense of the spiritual. Those who were closest to God were ones who could overcome these base human desires, to focus that energy towards the spiritual through their unfulfilled desire.
Yes, even modern-day pagans who are still breaking out of that mindset, not all of them will reach a place in their own journey where they understand and accept that ritual bloodletting, flogging, hook suspension, or whatever your flavor of sensation ordeal might be, is the same or equal to transcendental meditation, Reiki attunements, and crystal magic. The idea of challenge in general is usually beyond the scope of most American's concept of spirituality. They may even accept ritual sexuality, as long as it reflects a loving, supportive, energetically-connected relationship between the partners involved.
In specific, most pagans are drawn to the religion because anyone can experience imminent divinity (supposedly), anyone can declare themselves a religious leader, thinker, theologian, and in general, you can self-define where you fit in the imaginary spiritual hierarchy that we still carry over from our experiences of organized religion. Therefore, if someone else defines within the same religious spectrum, and yet is not ready to accept the role of challenge in their own religious exploration, those who practice Ordeal Path spirituality will be the antithesis of what drew them to the faith to begin with. In Ordeal, not everyone succeeds. There are very dangerous skill sets that we have to master, in both the physical and energetic realms, in order to do this work. It's not something you can learn by reading a book, communing with your Gods, or even attending a festival or three. You can literally kill someone if you declare yourself an Ordeal Master without a sufficient amount of training.
Take a note from the book of Tricksters; bucking the prevalent paradigm may seem "cool" from the outside because it takes obvious courage and chutzpah to practice (at any volume) what their heart says to, regardless of what their surrounding community says. However, it's not all awesome punk rock rebellion and celebrations of bravery. Working against the grain means that you put yourself up for public scrutiny, because you're easy to find and watch. You stand out from all the other practitioners who have maintained the status quo in terms of practice.
Ordeal Path is specifically about challenge, in which failure is an option. Maybe you can't take the pain , maybe you will die. We play with edges that most people are terrified of. What excites people drawn to this path is that they can overcome obstacles that most people never try. We fly, we survive incredible sensations, we take on purposeful injury and wear the scars like merit badges. Within a faith that focuses a lot of energy on healing, immortality, and right-living, we are constant reminders that as of now pain, suffering, and death are still part of the human experience.
This rubs a lot of pagans the very wrong way. By interacting with those who walk the path of Ordeal, they see ultimate failure. People don't want to face failure, especially in their lives of faith, where they're supposed to be able to escape the mundane experience and reach for the liminality of blessings. They work within a paradigm where the realm of Gods is benevolent, loving, warm, and safe. By doing this work, and sometimes by working with the Deities that accept this sort of work, we are painting a very different picture of what the realm of Gods might be. There are Gods that enjoy human suffering, feed on pain, and yet are not automatically malevolent to the human race.
When people who see themselves as religious leaders are challenged in their own faith, their positions of leadership can also be brought into scrutiny. We expect most of our ministers, reverends, and priests to be rock-solid in what they believe. They must serve as touchstones of the seeker's path, buoys in the storm of those who don't know what they believe. Even outside of paganism, in any religion when there are leaders who believe in opposition to another leader, there will always be conflict. It's in the leader's perceived best interest to speak out against false prophets, in order to maintain their steady connection to their own faith. In paths that do not accept challenge as a part of spiritual experience, their leaders absolutely must be stalwart in what they believe; otherwise, maybe they aren't the leaders they claim to be.
One of the reasons you don't find many Ordealists who create this sort of opposition is because we accept the condition of challenge as a part of our spiritual expression. We enjoy when someone disagrees with us, or points out a weakness in our belief. Since pushing boundaries, testing faith, and playing with new and different concepts are foundations in how we practice, we are only enthused when someone agrees to enter into considered debate with the validity of ordeal.
However, in order to be heard, people who disagree tend to turn up the volume. People rarely feel ambivalent about the role of BDSM in paganism; they're usually adamantly for or vehemently against it. So unlike disagreements over which pantheon could beat up which other pantheon in a dark alley, or whether water elementals really reside in the West regardless of where you live, sex and pain in modern spirituality is always loud.
A typical tactic of those who disagree with an entire movement, is to single out an individual and speak out against that particular person's practice, rather than addressing the movement as a whole. They choose their target mostly at random, unless the target is trying to work with the same demographic as the opposition (then the choice is easier). They phrase their arguments so as to make it about the person and their own ethics, rather than the entire movement. It makes it more difficult to debate concepts when the discussion is dissected down to the individual. I can't speak for every Ordeal Master in the Universe, even for all of the ones that I've personally worked with. But I'll sure as heck defend the validity of my chosen spirituality, if we're willing to talk about it in the larger strokes.
So in some ways, being publicly recognized as an Ordeal Master sets yourself up to be separated from the flock by those who don't understand or agree with What It Is That We Do. It's a danger we accept as part of the challenge of our path. It wouldn't be the Ordeal path if we ourselves weren't challenged in a variety of ways. We can lose face, lose followers, lose trust, lose our families and stability if we're not careful. In some states, we could face imprisonment. It's dangerous out there for people like us.
As much as being the local pagan in the leather jacket, oozing sex and mystery as part of your persona, might seem attractive and hip, it is almost never easy. Think long and hard about this before deciding how "out" you want to be.
Now, on the other side of the coin, there are benefits to announcing to the worlds of humans and Gods that you have decided to pursue the Ordeal Path. But that's an entry for another day.